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In my opinion

Reflections on a life devoted to postsecondary education

Universities are the backbone of our society, strengthening collective identity in all regions and reinforcing the hope for a better future in the minds of our fellow citizens.


At the end of January 2022, my term as executive director of the École nationale d’administration publique (ENAP) came to an end, and I was struck by a realization: from my first year as a student at École Ste-Claire d’Assise in Quebec City and for the 60 years that followed, education in general – and postsecondary education in particular – have been the main theatres of my working and professional life. The following summarizes the essence of my journey as well as my understanding of the meaning of education.

I believe I learned the essentials on education from thinkers like Fernand Dumont, André Laurendeau, Jacques Grand’Maison and Pierre Vadeboncoeur. Their work helps us identify its aims: forming individual consciousness, promoting roots in a distinct national society, deploying citizen vigilance, cultivating doubt, and opening ourselves to others and to the world.

In political philosophy, I belong to the camp of those who are weary of idealistic certainties and the multiple faces of doctrinaire thought. My references are Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin. In other words, the school of liberal humanism. To paraphrase Mr. Berlin: A decent society is far from idealistic; there is a constant give-and-take between rules, norms and principles.

My involvement in the world of education has taken place in Quebec and Canada. I’ve always been a political scientist with a keen interest in intellectual history and constitutional law – digging in these fields for an understanding of the Canadian federal Constitution and the historical and social experience of Quebec. I belong to a generation shaped by the traumatic experience of the debate around the Meech Lake Accord between 1987 and 1990. Alain-G. Gagnon, Alain Noël, François Rocher, Stéphane Dion, Linda Cardinal, Guy Lachapelle and Daniel Salée are the main political scientists of my generation who share this experience. Others will examine the topic with more lucidity and critical distance than I. For many of us, the Meech Lake saga was either a starting point or a turning point leading to a great deal of research on asymmetrical and multinational federalism, based on political philosophy, public law and political sociology, and always enriched by a comparative approach that included the experiences of other nations such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

My interest in liberal representative democracy, with all its greatness and limitations, has been more than just theoretical. In the early 2000s, after serving as party president and head of the political committee, I was a candidate for Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) in the riding of Louis-Hébert and was defeated. I still remember a striking remark made by the philosopher Jacques Dufresne at the time of the Groupe Réflexion Québec report, which led to the founding of the ADQ: “In the relationship between citizens and the state, it is time to move from cynicism and petty cheating to accountability.” In contemporary Quebec in the midst of a pandemic, François Legault’s government must ponder the meaning and depth of this challenge every day. From the Meech Lake fiasco to the present, I’ve identified with a school of thought grounded in the legitimacy of today’s autonomist nationalism and in Quebec’s future as a distinct national society, seeking a balance between this autonomism and interdependence within Canada.

After some 30 years in the department of political science at Université Laval, I became executive director of ENAP in 2017 and served nearly half of my term during a pandemic. For me, universities are the backbone of our society, strengthening collective identity in all regions and reinforcing the hope for a better future in the minds of our fellow citizens. In Quebec and across Canada, universities should be proud of the work they have accomplished throughout the pandemic. At ENAP, we have also done our best to help develop dedicated and competent graduates integrating a notion of public servicethat is attentive to the needs of the population.

Regarding language education, I advocate for an approach that combines passion with the discipline needed to master irregular verbs, for example. Passion and discipline will guide me in the years to come, while I continue  reflecting on education.

Guy Laforest was executive director of the École nationale d’administration publique until Jan. 31, 2022.

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